The announcement of J.D. Salinger’s death has me thinking about my favorite alienated, wandering adolescent searching for truth in a corrupt world. I’m not talking about Holden Caulfield. Caulfield is just a snarky, overprivileged preppie starring in what is surely one of the most overrated novels in the American canon. Nope, the real Great American Boy-Hero, maybe the Greatest American Hero Ever, is Huckleberry Finn.
On the surface, there are some parallels between both books and both heroes. Don’t be fooled and don’t accept third rate when the real deal is available. Both Holden and Huck are fleeing a structured society that they feel doesn’t represent them. Both embark on adventures. Holden has flunked out of prep school and takes off to his home city of New York for a lost weekend mostly on the fringes. Huck escapes a virtuous widow’s attempts to “sivilize” him. But he embarks on a rip-roaring raft adventure down the Mississippi River. If we just want to compare the two books on the basis of story, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wins hands-down.
Both books are written in the vernacular of the day and of the hero’s age group, and both books have been banned for it. But Holden’s whiney Fifties preppyisms sounded dated when I first read them a few short decades after the publication date. More than a hundred years later, Huck’s dialogue still sounds fresh, even if we flinch at his repeated, and authentic, use of the N word. But where I find Holden’s profanities and slang true to the character, they don’t serve much more purpose than authenticity and perhaps shock value. While Huck’s language is also authentic to time and place, I think Twain had something else in mind in having Huck refer to his good friend and companion as “Nigger Jim”. Huck is a product of a society that is inherently racist (in fact the novel takes place before the Civil War). Worse yet, he’s Poor White Trash, with a drunken, illiterate father who rails about how a Black professor is allowed to vote “jes like me” (even though he admits he, himself, was too drunk to make it to the polls). How much stronger the counterpoint when Huck begins to value Jim as an exceptional human being and turn his back on the racism that he has been taught at home, in school and in church. I can’t imagine how hard it would be for an African American teen to sit in a class and listen to that word bandied about. But it doesn’t take far into the book before Twain, who was an ardent abolitionist and tireless campaigner against racism, makes a stronger case than he could have with a character who was as saintly and sweet-spoken as Uncle Tom’s Little Eva.
Don’t agree with me? Russell Baker does:
“The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.”
But my big beef with Holden Caulfield? Well, what exactly do we learn from him and his adventures? That he’s not as much of a “catcher” as his wiser little sister? That, from the perspective of the mental facility where he ends up, he really kind of misses his “secret slob” prep school roommate Stradlater? That life’s a bitch and then you graduate?
You get just a bit more from Huck Finn.
Instead of snarking and sneering at everything in a vain attempt to create a veneer of sophistication, Huck cheerfully admits that he’s ignorant and “unsivilized”. But as he sees, over and over, how Polite Society, the Law, and the Church uphold things that Huck knows in his gut are not fair, he boldly decides to reject racism, violence and inequality. Society tells him helping Jim is stealing property, but Huck decides he’ll risk it and “I’ll just go to Hell.” Mark Twain in his lecture notes explains it better than I can:
“A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,”[Huckberry Finn is] “…a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”
Take that Holden Caulfield. Who’s the phony now?
I’m usually hesitant to recommend works of art based on the likability of the artist. Some truly great Art and Literature have been created by some truly odious human beings. But I can’t help contrasting Salinger and Twain.
You have to believe that Holden Caulfield, had he been allowed to grow up fictionally, would have ended up not unlike Salinger, living in an isolated cabin, drinking his own urine and obsessing over inappropriate relationships with teen girls. Twain, on the other hand, became a great humanitarian, speaking out loud and strong against institutionalized racism, segregation and lynching. Then he put his money where his mouth was, paying for at least two African-Americans to attend college. Besides Twain would be the best dinner party companion ever. He said everything witty that Oscar Wilde didn’t say first.
Huck Finn might not have become as adept with words, but I’m sure he would have grown up to be just as entertaining. And I’ll bet you a corncob pipe, in his off hours from rafting and adventuring (the end of the book finds him taking off for the West), he would have been as much the humanitarian as Twain. He’s already gotten off to a good start when the novel ends.
And therein lies the difference. For all Holden’s whining, his Upper East Side anguish can’t compare to the travails of poor Huck: drunken abusive father, poverty, society’s scorn. Yet, Huck is relentlessly upbeat. And better yet, he’s a doer. When he figures out that he can’t agree with his Society’s values, he actively rejects them and works to give a man his freedom. Were Holden around today, the only action I can see him taking is perhaps writing a bitter, venemous blog. Today, he would grow up to be a reclusive Rush Limbaugh. Flask of urine next to his keyboard. Maybe with a few well-thumbed back copies of Teen Magazine.
My choice is clear. Sorry, Holden fans. I’ll take my Teen Angst with a side of river rafting and likability, please.